The trouble with Scrabble-tile keyboards

My favourite Sony VAIO TT laptop is on its way out. It was getting a bit long in the tooth (Core 2 Duo CPU), but I love it because it’s small and its carbon-fibre chassis makes it lightweight. It’s the laptop I usually grab when I’ll be spending time out of the office, whether with clients or on holiday.

The trouble with Scrabble-tile keyboards

Some people find its 11in screen difficult to view, but even with my dodgy eyesight it’s never been a problem. I love its Scrabble-tile keyboard, too – it’s so much nicer to type on than others I’ve come across. The TT can last a long working day on a single charge even using the standard battery, while with the extended battery it will go two full days. It’s a brilliant machine.

Scrabble-tile keys can damage the screen, so that after a few months’ use you end up with key imprints on its surface

Recently, however, it’s become unreliable: sometimes on return from standby, the trackpad won’t work; other times the Wi-Fi sulks and won’t connect to any networks; sometimes its 3G slot won’t see a perfectly good SIM card sitting in it. It works fine 95% of the time, but that other 5% is becoming irritating.

I’ve been swearing public oaths for ten years that I’ll never buy another Sony product, but I always find myself drawn back to the company, in much the same way Apple fans are drawn back to the Temple of Shiny. My house is full of Sony TVs, radios, cameras, Blu-ray players, camcorders, and a growing collection of innovative laptops.

People complain about Sony’s after-sales service, and this is certainly something I’ve experienced. The company seems to treat laptops much like TVs or Blu-ray players – when a new version of Windows comes out you’ll be lucky to find support for it, and if it goes wrong and you send it to one of the company’s workshops (located somewhere on the European mainland), they’ll sit on it for a month then send it back with the fault uncorrected. I have the T-shirt, but I continue to go back…

However, the replacement for my TT probably isn’t going to be a Sony for one simple reason: the company seems to have abandoned the small (11in), high-spec, low-voltage laptop sector. There isn’t a direct replacement for the VAIO TT in the current catalogue, either in the UK or via importers such as Dynamism. There’s the Z Series of course, but at 13in that’s a fair bit bigger.

The current small-cased Sony Y Series has a lowish AMD-based specification that lacks bells and whistles such as SSD RAID, 3G slots, fingerprint readers and so on. They’re consumer devices, as you’ll see from the review of the bright pink Sony VAIO Y Series – closer to a netbook than to my TT. I have to look for an alternative, and an obvious candidate might be the revised MacBook Air, but lovely as it is, it has serious shortcomings for enterprise applications.

Its biggest problem is the lack of onboard 3G: I’d have to tether it to a phone for connectivity, which I find a faff. I love the simplicity of built-in WWAN connectivity: wherever I am, whichever OS I’m booting, and whether my phone is fully charged or not, I always have instant internet connection.

For other people the lack of a TPM module, fingerprint reader and so on might make the MacBook Air unsuitable for enterprise use: it doesn’t even have USB 3 ports. Of course, when I tweeted some Apple fans, the response was that you don’t need 3G when you can tether it to your iPhone; you don’t need TPM and fingerprint readers when there’s hard drive encryption; and you don’t need USB 3 when you have Thunderbolt. When it comes to my business laptop, however, getting by without or finding a workaround isn’t an excuse. So my quest for a replacement small business laptop continues. Anyone got any ideas?

No more Scrabbling

One big issue that I’ve yet to come to a decision about is whether or not I should choose a laptop with a Scrabble-tile keyboard. I like typing on them, especially Sony’s version, but there’s a major problem that I don’t believe I’ve seen addressed in any magazine review or column – Scrabble-tile keys can damage the screen, so that after a few months’ use you end up with key imprints on its surface.

This occurs when the lid is closed, and the screen is forced to press against the keys. These marks aren’t visible when the screen is bright – when typing a Word document, for example – but it’s when the screen is dark (when watching a DVD, working in Photoshop or playing a moody game, for example) where those little scratched rectangles become both annoying and distracting.

This isn’t only a problem for Sony; other manufacturers’ devices suffer similar problems. Sometimes the keys deposit finger grease onto the screen, which can easily be cleaned off, but with other makes – as with Sony – the key caps actually scratch the screen coating. A quick Twitter survey found both Apple and Dell laptop owners complaining about such problems. If you’ve encountered similar screen damage, please let me know; perhaps we can start to make vendors aware of this problem.

And come on Sony, don’t abandon those of us who want lightweight, high-end laptops. Small-screen machines don’t necessarily have to make do with crappy processors, and please sort out the screen marking issues. Perhaps then I’ll consider buying Sony again, when I’m on my next replacement cycle.

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